The SafeHouse Chicago in River North is a fun place to be. Even arriving at the restaurant can be an entertaining experience, and, once inside, you’ll find the theme very well executed. From real pieces of history to memorabilia from James Bond to Austin Powers, everything espionage related exists in harmony at The SafeHouse. In our past experiences with the restaurant and its founding Milwaukee location, we’ve enjoyed good food and friendly service. We only wish that this past Saturday’s event had been as harmonious.
The setup was an interesting one. The SafeHouse played host to lunch and a lecture with two Cold War historians. One of them, Werner Juretzko, was an actual G-2 agent for the US Army who’d been captured and sent to the infamous Stasi prison in East Germany, charged with espionage. The second was the son of Francis Gary Powers, the pilot shot down in the infamous U2 incident of 1960. For anyone interested in the topic of espionage, or in Cold War History, this talk, held at a popular attraction, was an interesting ticket, though the seriousness of being thrown in a notoriously inhumane prison and being shot down and turned over to the KGB may have been at odds with the occasional cries of “Yeah, baby, yeah!” emanating from the bathroom speakers now and again.
The main attraction of this event was a special treat indeed. Juretzko is a passionate, engaging storyteller, and had a way of connecting with the 30 something attendees despite the surrounding distractions, of which there were many. In a restaurant with two bar areas, we wish that organizers would have chosen to place this talk, an important lesson on the Cold War and interesting personal account, at the bar farthest from the kitchen and its ensuing noises. This would have been mitigated had the speakers been mic’d, especially Juretzko, whose soft German/Polish accent was hard to hear over ambient restaurant sounds.
Still, for those hoping to get compelling stories of what it’s like to actually be a spy, and what happens if you get captured, it was worth the price of admission. Werner Juretzko’s story is a unique one. Born in Poland, Juretzko was forced into the Third Reich at the end of World War II and by 14 was a veteran. His family suffered atrocities at the hands of the Soviets, he was imprisoned, and, once he escaped, he began work to “revenge his family’s honor.” This led him to intelligence gathering for the West, and eventually to being recruited by the army’s G-2 Intelligence service. Unfortunately, he was apprehended in 1955, and held by the Stasi in a secret East German prison that few left alive. His tales of his time there and the fate of some of his fellow prisoners were somber, almost too grave for the surroundings, but this sort of event is important exactly for that reason–bringing awareness to the darker parts of history in hopes to avoid reruns.
Frank Powers Jr. was the day’s second speaker, and told his own tale of loss. His father, Francis Gary Powers, was the pilot shot down in the 1960 U2 Incident. Though he eventually escaped, Powers later died as a result of a news helicopter accident in 1977 long after his intense experiences with the KGB. Frank was compelled to learn more about his father posthumously, which led him to intense research of the Cold War and the founding of the Cold War Museum in Virginia, as well as consulting on 2015’s oscar winning film about the U2 incident, Bridge of Spies, which centered on the exchange of Frank’s father for KGB agent Rudolf Abel. He spoke on the political climate at the time, and the initial hesitancy of the Eisenhower administration to admit acts of espionage.
As we mentioned before, this was an eye-opener, especially because not everyone’s history textbooks contained any information at all on the Vietnam or Cold War eras. It’s the reason places like the Cold War Museum are important, and a reason why an outreach at an interesting location like the SafeHouse is a good idea.
Overall, we enjoyed the talk, and would attend an event like this one again, if better organized. Aside from sound issues, The SafeHouse failed to provide an organized lunch, with unclear instructions to diners and unprepared wait staff, which led to an unpleasant dining experience after the talk despite the good food. No water was provided on the tables, and though it was clear when the talk was winding down, there was only one waiter available for drink orders, leaving those of us who stuck around for questions after the talk waiting up to 15 minutes for a drink while our food got cold.
We hope the SafeHouse will continue to offer these types of events, and we’d encourage attendance if only for the history lesson, but the SafeHouse has a way to go playing host, and we hope they’ll catch up.
The SafeHouse is located at 60 E Ontario St.